I hit a rock in the writing of this, mostly in the plot, and went through many, many version of this chapter before sending it out for your appraisal. To the readers who have stuck around, please drop me a review and tell me what you think. Because of Deathly Hallows, my plot has undergone some changes and now actually seems to work, for which I am very excited!

If you didn't like Deathly Hallows, stick around anyway, because it's only going to be partly compliant, and I'm taking on a mostly different angle from the one in the book. Also, I need about three or so people that would be willing to give away part of the ending to my fic by helping me decide it. Basically, I'm at a fork in the road with how to end this and would really like your opinion, but I'd like only a few people, to at least save what I decide on for everyone else. If you are interested, please contact me and I will send you my questions. I want to know what you think works best on this.

Eek, and this is unbeta-ed as of yet, so please forgive my errors.

Don't forget to review!

If the rest of Draco Malfoy's house was anything like his kitchen, Harry was beginning to consider a change of name. The House of Malfoy in his worst nightmares and fiendish revenge plots had always been tall and dark; an imposing structure furnished in the style of Count Dracula where the Malfoys counted their hoards of money before a roaring fireplace (wing-backed chairs included, of course) and took great pleasure in the general sufferings of others. What he found here was somewhat of a pseudo cottage-style kitchen, complete with cosy hearth and bustling house-elves. There were three of them, so far as he had counted, with rhyming names and the same tennis ball green eyes. They greeted him timidly and offered him tea, and were, in short, rather enjoyable when compared with the boy now sat directly across the table from him.

"I suppose you think I'm angry with you, then," Draco sighed long-sufferingly, swilling his tea. "Of course, I expected you'd be sort of useless from the off, didn't I?"

If he had expected an answer, he would be sorely disappointed. Confused to the point of utter helplessness, Harry shrugged and grunted through his bread. He could not say that he was completely upset by the fact that Malfoy's murder plot had been thwarted by his own uselessness, so, taking a leaf from Crabbe and Goyle, he said absolutely nothing at all. Malfoy frowned.

"It would have been nice if you'd come through with it, you know. It was important, though it's not the end of the world. I'll have to do it myself now, and you do owe me something for being such a dumb twit." Sighing again, he patted the table sadly. Even his light hair, usually rather sleek, seemed to droop. "Anyway," he brightened, "how did you find my house?"

It took Harry a full minute to register that he was no longer being put under a guilt trip, and another to muddle his way through the question. By the time he had reached his answer he was so thoroughly bemused by it all that he blurted thickly, "Turned west at London."

Certainly it wasn't the answer that Malfoy has been expecting (though he did a poor job hiding it), for he cracked a painful smile and all-but chewed out, "I asked for your opinion, not a map."

Oh, but, this was turning into quite the show. Harry felt his back straightening, eyebrows shot straight into his fringe as he deadpanned Slater-style, "And I'm aksking is there a quicker way to get here, cos that bloody drive gave me the worst fookin' headache."

"Really, that's - "

"Have you ever had to sit in a bloody taxi with Snape breathing down your neck?"

"You're entirely - "

"Swore I was going to die of death - or boredom."

"I don't appre - "

"And I didn't appreciate his smell, either. If he took a bleeding shower every once in a while - "

"You know, he is my - "

"And it doesn't help that he likes to read the stop signs every time we - "

"MORE TEA!"

The only thing better than a flustered Malfoy was a blushing, flustered Malfoy. With a face brighter than a Scot in Majorca, Draco seemed almost too relieved at the arrival of a beaming house-elf. As the creature bustled about refilling the pot and replacing biscuits, Harry could not help to notice how very different it was from the only other Malfoy-family house-elf he had met. Dobby had seemed to be always frightened, perpetually guilty and grimy, whereas the grinning thing now adding sugar to his fresh glass bounced with each step, and - was he humming under his breath? Draco, too, took notice of this.

"Twit," he announced grandly, snapping his slender fingers.

Taken aback, for he perceived the comment to be aimed at him, Harry spluttered, "Am I?"

If it was possible for Draco Malfoy to become any more obnoxious, he managed it just then. With eyebrows raised and a patronising note to his trill, he jabbed his closed fist into the teapot, and explained as one would to a very small, stupid child, "Father let me name them when I was eight. That's Twit - " The elf shivered, snapping off a dutiful bow before scurrying back to the cooker, where two others greeted him with nervous smiles and whispers. "Twat -," pointing out a slightly podgier version of Twit, " - and Wog." The shortest, spindliest of the group nudged his fellow - was it Twit? - and hurried off to calm a pot of boiling water. Harry couldn't help but wonder what Hermione would have said to this.

Speaking of Hermione... "There's another one around here somewhere," sighed Malfoy, as though his favourite dog had just been killed by a rogue milkman. "He was the replacement for our last. Father let me name him Potter. It was almost Granger at first; father liked that one, but Mother suggested Potter, and it seemed so fitting..." He sipped his tea thoughtfully, then tacked on, "Did you know she's started a society for them? Granger I mean."

"Spew," said Harry without thinking.

Fortunately, Malfoy appeared not to have noticed. "Yes, spew. Society for the Persecution of Elfish Warfare."

Harry coughed. "Welfare."

"Yeah, welfare - it's like the dole, isn't it? For poor people?"

If there were a million proper answers to this question, Harry would not have answered. Fortunately for him, he needn't do so. As he reached to scratch a persistent itch at the back of his head, the door to the kitchen flew open with a spectacular bang. "The young master Malfoy, sir, is wanted for dinner!" Squeaked the house-elf, his large ears matched only by equally large green eyes. On his forehead was drawn a rather crude lightning bolt in what Harry guessed to be black ink. Heaving a sigh, as though the world had just carved a great chip from his shoulder, Malfoy stood, brushed himself off, and nodded.

"You still owe me now from not doing my potion," he informed distastefully, glancing Harry up and down. Harry shrugged. "And I doubt we'll see much more of each other until school starts again, so - " By the way he hesitated, one might have thought that his airway had spontaneously closed up. Pained, his silver eyes tightened into mere slits, he managed to chew out rather ruefully, "Happy Christmas, then, Domingart."

And with that, Draco Malfoy was gone.

Harry watched the pair until the kitchen door was slammed shut behind them and they had left him for good. Without Malfoy it was suddenly very apparent how alone he was. By himself in the kitchens of someone else's house, on Christmas Eve, with only the house-elves for company and the same phrase running back and forth across his mind until it finally drove him to sleep on the wooden table.

Severus Snape did not approve of Christmas - not in the least. Christmas, he reasoned, like all the rest of the pointless holidays, was a waste of his time. Under normal circumstance he would have let the day pass without consequence. After all, what was there to celebrate about Christmas - a fat man managing to make himself airborne with the help of flying rodents, or whatever they were? He did not believe in gifts, or feasts or Christmas crackers. Nor was he a particular fan of wrapping paper bvand Christmas trees and multi-coloured lights.

Unfortunately for Snape, the rest of Spinner's End seemed not to share his views. The houses, as he trudged down the lane, presented themselves in flashes of blue, green, gold, red, and white. The Hightowlers had dressed their porch gnomes as fat little Father Christmases, each with lighted fishing pole and crêpe paper sacking on his porcelain back. He thought again of Harry asleep in his bed at the house, and his resolve strengthened. If the boy whinged of an unhappy holiday to the Headmaster...

"Well, when can you come out?" Slater looked impatient.

"It's Christmas Eve," said Harry pointedly. He was leaning in the doorway, his thin frame limp against the old wood, black hair falling lankly into his forehead. Snape had been out all day, leaving Harry largely to his own devices.

"What the hell is that? Hightowler's mum invites you to tea – finally – and you tell me no. Well, why the bloody hell not?" He looked intrigued suddenly, peering in the doorway as though expecting something, or someone, to jump out of a bookshelf or from under the rickety little table in front of the sofa. "Snape keeping you in?"

Harry sighed. Loathe as he was to admit, the thought of not knowing where Snape had gone off to frightened him. Had there perhaps been a Death Eater meeting called as he slept, a problem with the Order, a breech in security? Slater scowled.

"He is, isn't he? He's keeping you in, and you're scared of him."

The accusative tone in his voice stung as sharply, as though the boy had slapped him. "He's not," said Harry hotly. "I can decide if I want to go to Hightower's not, and I'm not going. I've – I've got to make lunch for us anyway, I haven't got time to – "

"You're an awful liar, Trotter; look at you. Your hands are shaking."

Indeed they were. Trembling and twitching, as though they had been hooked up to an electrical current. And yet it was not fear that made Harry shake, not the fear that Slater had accused him of, not of Snape, he realized, but for him. For the both of them. If there was something wrong, if there was a problem, if Snape had been injured or killed….Much as he wanted to hate the man, the idea of losing him so quickly, without warning, hit him like a bludger in his stomach.

"I can't – I – " But he was out of excuses. If Snape really was at a Death Eater meeting, wouldn't it be better to wait for him where he could distract himself with the company of his new friends. "If Snape comes when I'm gone…."

"Aha!" said Slater, his eyes gleaming triumphantly. "You admit it! He's keeping you in! He's making you stay and you're frightened of him! You're – " But Slater's face had fallen, he glanced Harry up and down. "What's he done to you?"

There was something about the underlying hint of concern, the worry in Slater's squinted eyes that reminded Harry so painfully of Ron and Hermione, he choked. How was it possible a person could care that much, knowing him for little more than a week as Slater did? He shrugged anxiously and tried to scowl, but it would not come. "If I go to Hightowler's for tea," he began testingly, his tone harsh even by his own ears, "will you shut the hell up about Snape?"

The younger boy seemed to consider it, there was a pregnant pause, and then, eyes nearly pushed up into his low brow, he grinned. "Right, but he does anything to you – I swear it, Trotter, I really do – tell someone. You can't keep everything a secret, not if you want friends. I couldn't."

But what he meant by this rather ambiguous statement, Harry was not to know. Not then, at any rate, for he was all-but dragged into the street and down to Hightowler's house, where a chubby little boy Harry fleetingly remembered to be Richard's brother regarded him silently.

"Pork," nodded Slater, by way of greeting. The boy fled into the house. "Mental, that one."

Harry felt the eyes on him almost before he could see them. "Tom, dear, watch Pork for me a minute, will you? I'd like to speak with Patrick alone."

By the way they all looked at him, Hightowler and his mum and Slater and even the little boy called Pork, Harry could tell that he had not been called to the Hightowler's home for tea alone. Without warning, Mrs Hightowler seized his hand and tugged him back, out of the parlour they had walked into, and through a small door, to a staircase. It was only now that Harry, who had felt quite at home in the disorder that was Hogwarts, and even somewhat the mess of 12 Grimmauld Place, noticed how old and poorly kept Snape's home was. Compared to the Hightowlers they were living in squalor. Where the wallpaper at Snape's was peeled and torn and yellowed with age, and the furniture creaked and the windows rattled every time one of them opened or closed a door, the Hightowler home was clean and well put-together. Pleasant, with floral papering and spotless wood floors, it gave off a sense of home and living that Snape's dusty, cramped abode conspicuously lacked.

"I was going to invite the both of you, Snape, too, but I'd run into him downtown and reckoned by the rate he was finding things, he probably wouldn't be back very soon…."

She was babbling to herself, squeezing his hand as they pushed through a handsome wood door and into a tiny bedroom. The bed was large, filling most of the space in a great mass of floral sheets and fluffy down pillows. Atop it lay a box, cardboard and dented. "This was my husband's home, until he left it – I had always meant to give these back to Snape, but he's such a frightening….Well, anyway…." She was blushing as she dragged him over. "My husband and Snape, they never got on well…when, one year, when Snape went off to that posh boarding school his father was always on about, my Richard – he'd meant to give them back, I'm sure, but one thing led to another and…well, I thought you might bring them back with you. It would be wrong to keep them, anyway, and you seem like such a nice boy…."

With a small smile, shy almost, she took out something long, square, and thin from the box and handed it to Harry. "Magical Mystery Tour," said Mrs Hightowler fondly. "The Beatles, that is." Harry's confusion cleared. The Beatles. There was one thing, at least, that he could recognise. "There must be at least fifteen here, not all the Beatles, of course. There's a player as well, er, that was mine. It just sits here gathering dust, and I thought you might like it. You could try a few of them out. It's rather different from a tape. You can bring them downstairs, set it by the door, and take it with you when you go back."

She smiled in such a way that Harry was instantly reminded of Mrs Weasley. Gulping, he nodded and took the box from her bed.

The walk downstairs was largely silent. Harry looked into the box every so often, giddy at the thought of a second Mrs Weasley, at the idea of friends who cared for him like Ron and Hermione. They had tea and sandwiches, and the conversation was light. Pork bounced and fretted over his cheese sandwich, picking out onions and rambling on happily about the coming holiday while the others laughed at his excitement. They were halfway through a bowl of crisps when there came a great pounding at the front door. Mrs Hightowler started, glancing from Harry to Slater and down the corridor.

"I'll get it!" called Pork spastically, slapping his pudgy fists into the table with a bang to echo the one still reverberating from the front door. Before anyone could stop him he shot from his seat; they could hear his high-pitched voice as he yanked open the door. "Mr Snape! Mum – it's Mr Snape! Yeah, he's here. Mum, he wants Trotter! Patrick, it's Mr Snape!" Harry moved swiftly, the box clutched tightly in his sweaty grip.

"Thanks for tea, Mrs Hightowler. It was really great, er, and thanks for…." He motioned the box. Though she smiled, Harry could see the worry in Mrs Hightowler's eyes just as it had been in Slater's. He hadn't the time to say goodbye, however, before Snape was pulling him back into Spinner's End, where the mud splattered their shoes and sprayed up the legs of their trousers, which, Harry realised for the first time, were almost identical.

They did not speak until the door of number six had closed firmly behind, and only then did Snape round on him, much as he had expected the man to.

"You weren't here – " They both said at once, red-faced and panting.

"You didn't leave a note," Harry complained. Snape raised an eyebrow.

"I was not aware I had to give notice each time I left my own house."

"Yeah, well, you should have. I was worried."

"About me?"

Harry spluttered, his colour rising as he held the box closer to his heaving chest. "No – yes! If Voldemort had – "

But Snape cut him off with a wave of his wand; the box flew itself to rest on the rickety old coffee table and Harry found himself suddenly standing in the kitchen, the man's fist gripped so tightly around his upper arm that it throbbed, pushing him into one of the spindly wooden chairs as he paced.

"How many times must I warn you not to say the Dark Lord's name? Too many! Foolish, arrogant, brash – did you not hear me last night when I specifically told you – told you­ – that I would be heading out early this morning and not to expect me at breakfast? Of course not! Sleeping, dozing off and forgetting everything, and did you not hear me say quite plainly to stay inside today? And how did you think I felt coming back to find my house empty, the bloody boy I am supposed to protect gone, with no notice, wand in his room when I know perfectly well that he would never, no matter how many brain cells may have been knocked from his head during those rotten Quidditch matches, never leave the house without it!"

And Harry could feel the swooping shame in his chest as he recalled last night's stilted conversation, the order to stay home while Snape was gone, to wash the dishes and try to sweep, if he got the chance.

"He – they insisted, and I – they think you're mistreating me." It came out in a rush, hurried, word after word tumbling over one another as they scrambled to form a coherent sentence. "It's not just Slater, sir, it's Hightowler and his mum and his little brother, and – and they've tried to weasel a confession out of me, but I kept telling them it was nothing. I – they – "

Snape had turned from him, his pale face like a mask under matching curtains of greasy black hair, as he appeared to be deep in thought. "They would think," he began slowly, his jaw tight, "She knew my father, my uncle…." They remained in utter silence for several long seconds, each wrapped in his own thoughts, though Harry strongly suspected they were thinking along the same lines.

"What – "

"Go to m – your room," said Snape slowly. The mask did not break, nor, indeed, did he show any emotion by the brief register of movement as a sallow finger pointed out the secret door behind the bookcase that led to the stairs. Harry hesitated, mouth dropped as though to protest. "You've eaten already. For Merlin's sake, boy, go! Just go!"

And Harry went.

He traipsed hrough the stuffy little sitting room, there snatching at the box of records, up to the small doorway to the stairs, which landed mere feet from his own door, the letters HBP, just like on the bed, scratched firmly into the dark wood. Once there and fully alone, he set down his box and sighed. The rails of the bed, the blankets and sheets and mattress itself seemed to echo this mood in their despair. Until seeing Hightowler's house, he had not realised how dusty it was, or how the paint chipped over the ancient armoire. In fact, the cardboard box, in all it's dented, torn form, seemed to fit in better than he ever could. Well, the old him, at any rate. The him that still looked like James Potter and made fun of Snape with his best friends, when they had been best friends.

He glanced again at the box, then, groaning with effort, dragged himself to it. The record player Mrs Hightowler had given him looked ancient. Made of faded red plastic, with a little box labelled "needles" taped to the side, it was dusty and appeared to have been used many times. He set it in the far corner on the floor and plugged it in. After a brief struggle replacing the needle, Harry was able to turn it on and off. Now, for the record she had shown him.

The Magical Mystery Tour, like the record player, smelled of closets and dust and dead memories. He fingered it carefully, cautious to place it just right. Aunt Petunia, Harry considered, knew how to use a record player. He had watched her once while dusting her bedroom. First came the record, and then to turn it on, and finally the needle, which was to be set at the very edge.

It crackled to life and filled the cramped bedroom with white noise. And then there were instruments, and music. The first song sounded slightly familiar, but the second and third were unknown to him, though no less enjoyable. It was almost, he mused, like being brought back in time. The room seemed not to have changed from the time that Snape had occupied this house with his aunt and uncle. Frowning, he reached for the paper case to the album. Scrawled across the top, unnoticed by Harry when he had first drawn the record from its cardboard holder, was a neat little inscription.

To the Prime Minister's Head, for his collection.

From love, the Gypsy's Wife

The Gypsy's Wife? Prime Minister's Head? Puzzled and curious, he reached to pull the box down. Sgt Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club, The White Album, Brahm's Lullabies, Russian Folk Tales, Assorted Muggle Fairy Tales, Beedle the Bard and Other Classics, Barny Malloy and the Purple Hinkypunks; they were a worn mix of Muggle and magic, and each had something written at the top.

The PMH, saw it and thought you might enjoy it.

Baby music.

For the baby.

For Seamus.

From love, the Gypsy's Wife

Enjoy it, dear. I bought it from your sort, in one of those shops.

Freckler Feckler, phoo you're an awful best friend. Love you.

And then, finally, Barny and the Beedle, bearing matching inscriptions in the same neat, girlish handwriting:

To the boy who has nothing, from the girl who wants everything (har har!) .

You shouldn't be so down all the time (it makes your face look long), Sev. Anyway, mum let me buy these for you in Diagon Alley (meaning, I sneaked off first chance and snatched them up before she could say no), to make up for missing your birthday when I was ill (I fully blame Tuney's awful sausages). It's so amazing there, Sev, you were right (how do you tell a girl goblin from a boy?)! Please be kinder to Tuney while I'm gone this holiday (or prepare for more of her lovely sausages), and to yourself. You're not all bad (Mum says she'll give you that haircut when we get back), you know. Happy Christmas!

Love you,

Best Friend

Snape had a best friend? A girl? Who was Tuney, a pet? Perhaps Tuney was a dog, which Snape had been watching for his friend, the giver of the two magical records? And Seamus. He had never heard of a Seamus other than Seamus Finnigan, and the other Gryffindor was not likely to have been in any kind of contact twenty or so years before, with a teenaged Severus Snape. The new mystery felt refreshing. Eager to unravel it, Harry replaced the records in their box, his hands fumbling, and hid it under the bed. He felt suddenly very weary, as though instead of tea Mrs Hightowler had invited him on a run around the town.

On the bottom level of Snape's ageing home, in the grungy little kitchen, a dark-haired man appeared to be having a staring contest with the table below his thin face. Snape grunted, fingers massaging gently at his temples. He had a headache. Christmas Eve was ruined, and it was all the stupid neighbours – Hightowler and that little monkey, Slater.

A weary look had settled itself into Snape's harsh features. His black eyebrows, like curved, furry little caterpillars over beetle-black eyes, seemed to droop, the corners of his lips, usually raised in a smirk, fell flat. Hightowler knew Snape. Hightowler knew of all the Snapes. Hightowler knew everything, and if the boy found out it might take too much to explain it all. He would never be able to explain it all, and Harry was still doing so poorly with his Occlumency. It was useless to worry, of course. Worry could only make him paranoid, and the last thing he needed was Harry Potter suspicious.

Back upstairs, in the boy's room, the room that had once belonged to the Prime Minister's Head, Harry Potter was asleep. Below him Snape fretted and worried his way into the night. He worried through charmwork, back bent over a wicked looking little stuffed crocodile with soft cloth skin. He worried through gift-wrapping and cleaning and thinking and fretting. With the crocodile wrapped perfectly in a flimsy box, he worried his way to bed.

Christmas Day dawned brightly on Spinner's End, but to Harry it seemed a dark cloud had rested itself above them, sucking the happiness from the holiday with each of Snape's derisive sniffs. He picked at his egg and sausage, uninterested.

"If you do not eat," said Snape placidly as he pushed his own egg around, "you cannot go out with those grimy little neighbourhood monkeys later on." They regarded one another carefully, Harry silent and thoughtful, Snape stubborn, awkward even. "Drink your milk."

"I'm not thirsty."

For a moment it looked as though Snape might reprimand him; his black eyes were full of something – was it reproach? The eggs lay forgot on his old china plates, milk yellowing in the glasses, but Harry and Snape seemed not to notice. It was as if weeks of being together had deprived them of something to look at so badly that they simply could not bring themselves to look away. Deep, searching, Snape's gaze met Harry's eyes and they broke contact. He was not going to let himself get Legilimised on Christmas.

"The Headmaster arrives at two," Snape grated. "It is – " he checked the clock above the cooker, his face unreadable once more, " – nine. You have until one-thirty with those boys, and then I shall expect you back."

The Headmaster arrives at two. The sinking in his stomach was indicative enough of the panic Harry felt at these words. Dumbledore would know that he had not been working at his Occlumency, and he would know, too, every tiny thing that Harry had done since their arrival at Spinner's End, for Snape was sure to tell him. And with Dumbledore disappointed in him, the only thing he would be able to think about was Draco Malfoy's failed attempts at poisoning him.

Snape's next words came distantly to him, as if from a thick fog. "I doubt very much that it had crossed your mind to buy anyone else a Christmas gift."

The sinking increased. Presents. Would Hightowler be expecting one? And Slater? Snape he need not worry about, Snape would never have got Harry anything. But what about Ron and Hermione – would they still expect one from, even in critical condition at St Mungo's? His attention was drawn up to the table as Snape slapped a small, home-wrapped box onto it and stomped to the sink.

"Who's it from?" asked Harry cautiously, prodding it. Snape showed no signs of having heard him. "D'you know who sent it?" he tried again, but Snape was busy washing the dishes and seemed not to have noticed. Carefully, with both hands poised to push the table away, he undid the thin green ribbon. The paper was ordinary and Muggle and shiny silver. Slytherin colours.

"I quite assure you, Potter, that it is not going to explode if you actually open it." Snape had moved from the sink to hover behind him. His large nose seemed to grow from underneath as he sniffed.

Indignant, Harry gave a gentle tug and the remainder of the wrappings fell away. The box was ordinary, made of thin cardboard, and could not have been any larger than his foot. Snape sniffed again, and Harry reached inside.

"Rotter," came a squeaky voice from inside. Whatever it was his fist closed around it; it was soft and squirmed between his fingers. A tiny crocodile waddled out over Harry's fist and frowned at him. It was stuffed, he realised, a plush toy that must have been charmed to life by whoever the gift was from. He dropped it on instinct and pushed it away, drawing a deep, Snape-like glare from the tiny creature, which said, "I may be yours and ordered to be polite to you, but if you continue to gape at me you'll face my teeth of fury!" Delighted, he reached to pick the thing up again, more gingerly this time, by its wriggling tale. "Unhand me, you malodorous imbecile! Unhand me, I say! Unhand me at once!"

"I suggest," came the deep drawl from somewhere behind his ear, Harry had quite forgot that Snape was so close, and started, "that, for once in your life, you do as you are told."

"Did you do it?" He twirled the tale in his fingers, the crocodile complaining as it swung left-to-right over the table, but Harry was not paying attention. "It sounds a bit like you." And then, as an afterthought, "And a bit like Sir Cadogan."

"Sir Cadogan! You dare – you dare – I come from a noble line of crocodiles, sir! From my great-uncle Gorbert who was fashioned in Grenoble, my great-great-great grandfather who was created in a toy shop in Germany and sent to England to be the friend of young Everard Pri – "

"You did, didn't you?"

"And why," Snape snapped, taking up the milk glasses and returning to the sink, "would I waste my valuable time on a trivial child's toy?" But Harry swore that as he turned, the most indistinct of pleased smirks crept into the man's lined face and softened them.

Before he could respond the front door gave a mighty lurch, and a boy's voice called loudly, "HAPPY BLEEDING CHRISTMAS, TROTTER!" Harry need not wait for the invitation to leave; Snape's deep-seated glare was enough. Stuffing the toy into the pocket of his jumper, amidst many complaints, he departed with a hasty "Happy Christmas, sir".

"Took you long enough," Slater moaned. Harry saw the younger boy's eyes swivel from his black shoes to his old jumper, taking in everything.

"It's Christmas." Even to him his voice was cool and unwelcoming. The crocodile had stilled and was apparently listening intently now.

"Yeah, and Snape's let you out! Hightowler's mum made pudding, so we're going to McDo until the danger's past." He wrinkled his nose, jerking a thumb at the other boy, who had appeared almost from nowhere on the front steps of his house. "The Coftons are coming, as well. They're not bad, once you know them – oh, look, here they come."

They stood with Hightowler as the two groups neared, and smiled as Harry came closer.

"Where to?"

The small group walked for a long time, filling the passing air with small talk of Christmas (which Harry discussed in length) and school (which he did his best to avoid). Slowly, the scenery began to change from the dreary, muddy streets of Spinner's End (Slater informed him that the neighbourhood sat right upon the river, and was muddy year-round) to what he supposed was the middle class section of Rottidge. Many of the houses here were unconnected, with their own little gardens and bright exteriors. Beside an empty playground he spotted something shiny and small in the dirt. Whatever it was, Harry pocketed it, and they moved on.

"It's nice," he noted to the nearest Cofton (James?). The boy nodded.

"It's mostly new people here, not like Spinner's End. Sean and me, we live two streets down. It's nice there, too."

"Oh." As much as he had been unwanted, perhaps even downright loathed, at the Dursleys, Harry had to admit that while they were unpleasant, they kept a nice house. From their sheltered suburban neighbourhood, to Hogwarts, to the cosy atmosphere of the Weasleys, he had always taken for granted the neighbourhood he was in, the cleanness of the streets and the windows and the people who lived there. Even Grimmauld Place, though it had been grotty compared to the rest, had its own grandeur, its secrets, its hidden wealth. But Spinner's End was none of that. If Voldemort discovered them that moment, killed Snape, and somehow lost Harry, if Snape was good enough to leave him anything, if blood had any say in what he inherited, the house on Spinner's End would be his – and what was there to that?

Of course, he reasoned, there was always the chance that England would freeze over, in which case the place might make for good firewood. He could sell it, if there ever was a great freeze, he could sell it to the Muggles and make himself a tidy fortune, and Snape would never know, because he would be dead. Dead people never got a say in real estate.

Grinning to himself at his musings, he followed the others through their midtown detour, past streets of houses with clean bricks and fat children on bicycles, past mothers pushing prams and complaining about milk prices, old men walking dogs that looked about ready to drop dead, a dark-haired woman chasing a little boy, screaming with laughter. They passed another playground, where a small boy and girl sat in the sand and giggled over small children things. By the time they had reached downtown Harry was beginning to feel distinctly underprivileged.

Through a lunch of burgers and Coca Colas, with Slater telling corny holiday jokes and the Coftons making bets on who could land their wrappers in the hat of a woman three tables away, Harry thought of Spinner's End and the records. He had yet to listen to the magical ones, for they refused to play. Perhaps the boy Snape had once possessed of an altered record player, one that cooperated with magic? It might still be in the house somewhere, if he could stomach a search.

"Not hungry, are you?" There was a look so reminiscent of Ron in Sean Cofton's eyes that Harry's breath caught in his throat. Despite the fact that the Rottidge boy had brown hair, where Ron was red, his freckles and eyebrows, and even the long nose were so Weasleyesque he did a double take. "I'll have it if you won't."

While Sean and James devoured his lunch and Slater watched out of the corner of his eye, his jokes growing worse with each punch line, Harry thought. His thinking was split into three sections that overlapped one another as they competed for his attention: the old Harry Potter, the current Patrick Trotter, and whatever Dumbledore, Snape, and Voldemort had in store for him. He had gathered from Dumbledore's deep concern for the matter that Occlumency was going to be extremely important, but for what? The only plausible explanation was that both Snape and Dumbledore were expecting Harry to meet the one person he truly needed to defend his mind from, and if that was the case –

"He always this boring?"

Everyone froze and the silence, to which he had become rather unaccustomed to when in the company of his new friends, drove Harry so far from his thoughts that he had no hope of finding them before lunch had ended.

"No," Slater bit out absently, midway through tattooing James's arm with the ketchup. "Sometimes he talks about books." Harry nudged him, none too softly. "Well," he amended, still not looking up from what had quickly become a lurid red flower, "sometimes he talks about sport, too And Snape."

"It's comparable with your atrocious attempts at humour, I would suppose."

The voice came, a tiny squeak, from behind the thin cloth of Harry's jumper. He started and glanced round, but Slater and the rest were too busy with the ketchup tattoo to worry about disembodied voices and simply snorted. "Wait till you hear him about Snape. Hightowler and me are beginning to think they're either related or planning on announcing their marriage sometime soon, but Trotter'll be wearing the gown, as he's got no balls where Snape is concer – "

"Or perhaps you weren't trying to be funny at all? If this is the case, I suggest you have your head examined, my precious Mugg – "

"Did you hear something?"

Both James Cofton and Hightowler jumped.

Slater groaned. "Now you've gone and cocked up the – "

"Of course, it never occurred to you that it might have been awful in the first place, had it?"

Squirming, Harry moved to cover the conspicuous lump in his pocket with the empty wrappers from someone's chips.

"I heard it, too," said Sean. He glanced suspiciously at Harry.

"You heard no such thing!" came the indignant little voice. Harry squirmed again. He had not thought about the crocodile since stuffing it in his pocket ages before; he felt it moving now against his chest, gnashing its teeth of fury and scratching at him.

"It's Trotter," Hightowler pointed out, gesturing him. "The noise is coming from his jumper."

"Oooh, we're clever, aren't we? You've got a brain for the Ministry, Muggle Boy."

Slater looked confused, the Coftons torn somewhere between amused and puzzled, but Hightowler was grinning as though he had won a contest, his lips pulled tight into thin cheeks. He snorted.

"I didn't know you were ventriloquist, Trotter. They teach that at prison school, too, do they?"

And Harry could have killed Snape, if the man had been there, if the situation had not been so amusing and intensely terrifying at the same time.

"Definitely a brain for the Ministry," said the little voice sagely, to which the rest looked utterly perplexed.

"What sort of ministry is it?" Slater asked. Harry could feel tightness in his chest, but the crocodile was climbing out of his pocket now.

"The Ministry of Imbeciles, Cretins, and Those Who Stand on Toadstools," said the Crocodile, and Harry grinned thinly. "Of which you will no doubt be Minister, my Muggle friend."

"Oy," said Slater loudly, "What the hell is a Muggle?"

Stuffing the crocodile deep into his jumper, Harry answered swiftly, "A disease. Like a leper." He felt guilt swoop in low on his stomach, his thoughts on Hermione and his mother, who would most likely have scowled if they could hear that. Slater laughed uneasily and Hightowler looked slightly amused, but it was the Coftons that drew Harry's immediate attention. With wide eyes they glanced between one another and exchanged a knowing look that was all too familiar.

"My mum's expecting me to at least have a bite of her fruitcake," Hightowler announced out of the blue. It did the trick, at any rate, and cleared the tension. Harry nodded.

"Snape'll want me back soon. My – my grandfather is coming." He thought of Dumbledore and the long, silvery beard. As a lie, it was closer to the truth than even he realised. Dumbledore was a grandfatherly age – perhaps great grandfatherly where Harry was concerned, but old was old, after all. "We're having pudding – he'll be upset if I come back late."

They stood and nodded to one another, like mini-diplomats, following which Harry raced out into the street, the disembodied voice of his crocodile floating behind –

"What the devil is going on? I demand to know this instant! This instant! Do you hear me, boy? I swear to you, I'll come after you in the night! You will never escape my jaws of thunder!"

He reached number six in record time, panting and heaving himself through the front door, which closed with a fantastic slam and alerted Snape to his arrival. The man bustled out, followed by a beaming Dumbledore who looked quite stunning in a gleaming, gold velvet suit. Harry choked.

"Professor!"

"Professor!" echoed the crocodile. It had begun to squirm again in his pocket and he let it out at once to roam the worn sofa.

"Ah, Harry, Severus tells me you've made friends in the neighbourhood." The Headmaster's blue eyes carried their customary twinkle as withdrew a small package from the pockets of his robes. "For you."

Like Snape's crocodile, the gift was pocket-sized and wrapped in ordinary Muggle paper, this time in red and green. Curiosity driving him, Harry tore through the paper, earning himself a disapproving glare from Snape, who, he now realised, was tugging at the pointed tip of a jolly red hat with bells at the end, which appeared to have stuck itself quite firmly on his greasy head. From the twinkle in the old man's eyes, the culprit was obvious.

"Blimey, sir, it's – er, what is it, exactly?"

Dumbledore beamed wider, his eyes were eager as he sat down on the couch, the crocodile climbing to sit contentedly in his lap. "It is a Christmas gift, of course, and a rather good one, if I may say so myself. Fawkes chose it from my office. I hope you don't mind, but he was rather persistent that you were in dire need of sweet machine. It makes sherbet lemons upon command!"

If he hadn't already known for certain that it was true, Harry might have thought the Headmaster was off his trolley. A sweet machine? Sherbet lemons?

"Of course," Dumbledore continued pleasantly, patting the seat beside him, which Snape, who looked thrilled, quickly occupied, "I had considered that not everyone shares my personal fondness for Muggle sweets, so I have altered it for you. You can write an idea for your own sweet and drop it into the slot at the top, and it will create it for you! A full factory cleverly compacted into one pocket-sized little machine. The Weasley twins would have been quite pleased, I must say."

"The Weasley twins," Harry repeated, regarding his new gift with interest. It looked rather like a teacup, with a handle on the side that he supposed was meant to be pulled, and a little spout where the sweet came out. The whistled and spat out a conspicuous yellow ball, and the crocodile scowled enviously.

"The very same," confirmed Dumbledore. " They've asked me to relay half of their shop to Mr Harry Potter for Christmas. It is waiting for you at Hogwarts, where, I assure you, the only danger of it being taken is by Mr Filch, who would know enough by now not to come up to my office while I am away."

"Thank-you, sir."

When Dumbledore smiled Harry felt something within him stir, a fondness for the old man who had done so much for him. The blackened hand, withered and dead looking as it had been from the first time they had seen one another that summer, lay serenely atop Snape's dusty pillow. When he spoke, it was with a low note of reluctance. "I am afraid, however, that my visit is not purely for the pleasure of wishing you a Happy Christmas." He straightened, and Harry could feel the sinking in his stomach; Voldemort was planning on blowing up an old woman's tea party and Remus had died while safeguarding the sugar pot, or Ron had been expelled for tossing Malfoy from the Astronomy Tower, or Death Eaters had impersonated the McDonald's employees and followed him home from his lunch with Hightowler and the others. And, Harry strongly suspected, because he was complete pants at Occlumency.

"But first," Dumbledore stood and brushed off his suit, his smile just as wide as it had been before, his eyes twinkling all the same behind their half-moon spectacles, "I did not cause poor Severus here such distress by dragging him down to that charming little grocer for nothing."

There was something in the way he said charming that made Harry snigger, and even Snape looked as though he might smile.

"If I recall, the chipolatas should be ready by now. Come, Harry, Severus, when an old man smells food he intends to eat it – Fruitcake, my boy?"